Mitigating disasters requires planning

As the Philippines looks set to be battered by more storms, the real risk to the people comes in the aftermath.

A tropical cyclone north of the Philippines threatens to bring still more rain, after flooding last week left most of Manila under water and drenched 95 other cities almost as badly.

For now, however, people are striving to get back to normal. Schools, shops and workplaces are reopening. Families are leaving emergency shelters to learn what has become of their homes. Mud and debris are being cleared laboriously away. Where materials can be found, shanties are being rebuilt.

But now Manila's 12 million people, and millions more across Luzon, face the risk of disease, more insidious than flooding and potentially more deadly in the crowded shantytowns hit hardest by the deluge. Floods spread sewage and filth, contaminating water supplies and food stocks and providing ideal conditions for disease.

Officials and NGO relief agencies are scrambling to provide water purification tablets, fresh water, portable latrines, food and other relief goods. But it is an uphill fight. Skin diseases have already been reported, and the World Health Organisation warns of dengue fever and of leptospirosis, a disease that spreads through water tainted with rat urine.

It's a sadly familiar pattern. After any natural disaster, headlines around the world proclaim the death toll, but after a day or two the world's interest drifts away. But those affected cannot move on: a disaster can disrupt life for millions for months. After Pakistan's heavy floods in 2010 and 2011, most of those affected in Sindh, for example, have still not regained even their austere pre-flood way of life, NGOs report.

Although political leaders sometimes fail in their duty to foresee and plan for all-too-predictable disasters such as recurrent flooding, those living in at-risk areas can at least depend on the concern and generosity of their kinsfolk across the diaspora. Filipinos in the UAE and elsewhere are mobilising to provide aid to their countrymen; Pakistanis here did the same in last two years, and Iranians around the world are finding ways to help the victims of Saturday's deadly earthquakes there.

That's all good. But it's a pity that these natural, emotional outpourings of generosity are not matched by official resolve, before disasters strike, to build capacity so as to both minimise disruption and manage the aftermath the next time something terrible happens.

Published: August 14, 2012 04:00 AM